Blog: Latino Ed Beat

Do English Language Learner Programs Work?

About one in four American children are immigrants or were born to immigrant parents. By 2050, immigrant children–the fastest growing student population–are expected to make up one-third of the country’s under-18 population.

For those children, the majority of whom are Latino, learning English is key to academic achievement.  But how well are English as Second Language programs–designed to help non-English speakers master academic English–working?

It’s a question that often crossed my mind as an education reporter–and has grown louder in the last couple of years, as I’ve stepped into the role of a classroom teacher.

One of the roles of English teachers in Texas is to help assess the writing and speaking skills of ELL’s. But we were given only superficial training in how to do so. All that was required was passing an online course, which most of us accomplished through educated guesswork. Yet, we were tasked with helping to decide which students were beginning, intermediate, or advanced English speakers.

Recently, in a comment posted to this blog, a teacher suggested that education reporters look into how ELL’s are identified. Are children being placed in ESL programs because of poor vocabulary or poor knowledge of English? What do schools gain or lose by placing students in ELL classes?

And what are students in ELL programs learning? I recently attended a faculty training session for college instructors, where one teacher–a former ESL high school teacher–mentioned that she had worked in four different districts. In all four, ELL students were assigned writing exercises that involved just copying material directly from their texts. Even if such rote assignments help students master basic English structure, how might it affect the students’ academic growth?

Recently released data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights shows that ELL’s have lower rates of enrollment in Algebra I and advanced placements courses.

About 79 percent of ELLs speak Spanish as their native language, making this a key issue for anyone covering Latinos and Latino education.

For reporters interested in digging a little deeper, here are some good resources to start with: